As soon as Damien Riat saw his name in the Washington Capitals' lineup for their preseason opener against New Jersey, he pulled out his phone. "Looking forward to seeing you on the ice," he texted Nico Hischier.
Riat, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick, and Hischier, the league's top overall selection in 2017 by the Devils, grew up in Switzerland with NHL dreams. Monday night's exhibition will be the first for both, but more notable than a preseason meeting between friends is the significance for their homeland's emerging hockey program.
The first Swiss player selected No. 1 overall, Hischier's Devils debut at Prudential Center in Newark will be monitored across Switzerland at 2 a.m. local time, another milestone in a recent trend of the small country producing great NHL players.
Just 11 Swiss players have played more than 100 games in the NHL, and all but three were in the league as recently as last season. To put the interest in Hischier in perspective, consider the comments of tennis superstar Roger Federer when asked about his countryman while competing at the U.S. Open earlier this month.
Before Hischier, the NHL was introduced to Nashville defenseman Roman Josi and Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter. But Josi, Niederreiter and other current NHLers remember looking up to savvy defenseman Mark Streit.
"He was kind of the door-opener for now the younger generation," said Raeto Raffainer, the director of national teams in Switzerland.
When the NHL was in a lockout during the 2004-05 season, some players found work in Switzerland's professional league. Raffainer and Streit were teammates that year in Zurich, and even against some NHL competition, Streit was dominant. As a 22-year-old during the 1999-2000 season, Streit played some American Hockey League games, but he flamed out and returned to Switzerland. He later decided to make another run at the NHL the season after the lockout. That turned into an 11-season career that inspired the likes of Josi and Niederreiter.
"When I was on the under-17 or under-18 [Swiss national] teams, we would always talk about Mark Streit," Niederreiter said.
"It gives you confidence a little bit, you know?" said Swiss Nashville forward Kevin Fiala. "One guy, then two guys, then three guys. You get more motivation and confidence in yourself that you can do it, too. Right now, we get a No. 1 pick. It should motivate even more guys in Switzerland."
Switzerland started putting more resources into its hockey development program roughly 10 years ago. Professional coaches from abroad were brought in, "getting away from only the fathers are coaching the sons," Raffainer said. Current Ottawa Senators Coach Guy Boucher, who has twice reached the Eastern Conference finals in his career, spent three years coaching in the Swiss league before joining the Senators.
To help level the playing field, Switzerland used to have its under-17 team play the under-16 team of an international opponent like the Czech Republic or Finland. That's not the case anymore, and at the most recent World Junior Championships, the Swiss gave the U.S. team a scare in the quarterfinals. The Americans triumphed, 3-2, then went on to win the tournament.
"Obviously, we are losing more than winning, but we are there," Raffainer said. "There's not a huge gap anymore that our teams are losing 15-zip."
The Capitals have taken a player from Switzerland in each of the past three drafts, selecting defenseman Tobias Geisser in the fourth round this summer. Riat will return to Switzerland this season and play another year in Geneva. Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, the Capitals' 2015 second-round pick, is the closest to cracking the NHL roster. He is one of five young blue-liners vying for the team's two openings, and even if he starts the season in the AHL, he could make his NHL debut this season.
"I think [Switzerland has] given the younger players more of an opportunity to play with the older players at times, kind of speeding up their development," said Ross Mahoney, the Capitals' director of amateur scouting. "I know they put a lot of money into their coaching and into their development of younger players and younger ages. A lot of them have an opportunity to move up and play in the elite league or first division and get the opportunities. I think it's just part of them putting in more resources and developing better coaches and improving their whole system. It's paid dividends. There's a lot more Swiss players now."
Exploring the team's practice facility at training camp this week, Siegenthaler noticed a display listing every Capitals player to ever wear a certain jersey number. Timo Helbing was the only Swiss name after he appeared in just two games for Washington. It won't be long until more Swiss names become etched there.
"Hockey was always popular there, but the NHL wasn't as close [for Swiss players] as it is right now," Niederreiter said. "Now we have quite a few players overseas. The NHL has definitely gotten a lot bigger now than when I was a kid."
Source : http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/hockey/ct-nico-hischier-devils-debut-nhl-switzerland-20170918-story.html